Fit for Success: Human Peformance Lab supports exercise and sport science endeavors
Metabolic Cart, Dual X-ray Absorptiometry, Bioelectrical Impedance—although these words may sound foreign, they are staple phrases for students involved in research at Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Human Performance Lab (HPL).
In 2005, the university established the HPL as a part of the Exercise and Sport Science Department to help students better understand the human body and how it functions. Located in the Frank and Sue Mayborn Campus Center, the lab is equipped with resources to help students turn textbook concepts into practical applications.
“Our central purpose is to serve our students,” said Dr. Colin Wilborn, the lab’s director. “It is a tool to teach students how to assess body composition, strength, resting energy expenditure, dietary analysis, sports performance, and power output.”
Lab coordinator Stacie Urbina (right) performs a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan on senior Kyle White.
Urbina directs White as he stands on the Biospace InBody machine to measure his body’s water and fat composition.
Assistant lab coordinator Sara Hayward uses an ultrasound imaging machine to measure the muscle thickness of White’s biceps.
Hayward goes over the test results and gives White advice on how he can improve his overall health.
Junior Katelyn Villa (seated) uses ultrasound imaging to approximate the muscle activity in freshman Deoryen Thornton’s leg.
Thornton attempts a 405-pound squat. Spotters are needed on each side of him and behind him as a safety precaution in case he is unable to successfully lift the bar up. Graduate assistant Jacy Mullins (far left) watches to make sure Thornton successfully hits a 90-degree depth, marking a successful squat max.
More than just a resource for student researchers, the lab is a free service for all students, faculty, and staff members who want to better understand their bodies and how they function. Lab researchers perform tests on participants to help them maximize their potentials and reach a new level of healthy living.
Wilborn gave an example. “Someone comes in and wants to know their body composition and bone density. We test them and give them their results, as well as provide feedback on the next steps they can take. Through the energy expenditure test, we can tell how many calories a person burns in a day so he or she can know what to eat prescriptively to lose or gain weight,” Wilborn said.
The lab staff schedules nearly 2,500 appointments a year, giving student researchers ample opportunities to serve participants as well as develop innovative research projects. They are also tasked to recruit participants for studies funded by outside grants (from companies both U.S.-based and abroad).
“The HPL has completed more than 35 studies and is currently working on 9 more this semester,” Wilborn said. “Every student who works or volunteers in the lab gets his or her name on a published presentation when the research is complete.”
Since 2006, the lab has received more than $900,000 in funding to do research, primarily on sports supplements and dietary aids. From these studies, students have contributed to more than 40 published articles.
Wilborn’s task is to continue securing grants to enable this type of external research. “In the sports supplement world, there are a handful of places companies go to execute their research. Our lab is one of those places,” Wilborn said. “Supplement companies are looking for reliable people to do their studies.”
Due the number of scholarly articles published by the lab, UMHB has a reputation among supplement companies for providing excellent clinical data, Wilborn noted. Companies need this type of information to help market their products and sell them in major retail stores.
Wilborn—who is also an associate professor of exercise science and the dean of the Graduate School—said the HPL team analyzes its efforts after every study. “We are very critical of our work,” he said. “We ask ourselves, ‘What could we have done differently?’ Let’s say something didn’t work like we anticipated. We ask ourselves, ‘Did we do something wrong? Or, is this just not an effective supplement?’”
Lab coordinator Stacie Lee Urbina ’10, MSEd ’12, has been running the lab for five years. She leads a team of five student workers, one graduate assistant, and a part-time staffer. It is not uncommon for Urbina and her team to be at the lab at 4:30 in the morning on any given day preparing for a 5 a.m. appointment.
But Urbina isn’t focused on the odd hours or the demanding task load; she’s concerned with the people. “I like working with all of the different students and participants. It’s amazing to see someone be able to accomplish big things,” she said.
Urbina believes the benefits for students involved with the program are countless. “It gives them responsibility and a unique challenge to help others. It forces them to manage their time and their resources by getting up early in the morning and setting up equipment for a $100,000 study. There is a lot of weight to what they do,” she said.
Among the success stories is Jordan Outlaw, MSEd ’14, who spent two years working in the lab full time as a graduate assistant. “I did a variety of tasks: collecting data, designing and running studies, writing grants and manuscripts, and performing other day-to-day activities,” she said.
Outlaw has published five manuscripts and recently submitted another, as well as authored a chapter in a sport nutrition textbook.
“These are huge accomplishments for Jordan,” Wilborn said. “Some academics don’t publish five papers in their whole career, yet here you have a student who was able to do all this while in a master’s program.”
Conference attendance is another benefit of being involved in the HPL.
“Students meet experts in the field and come into contact with people who have written the textbooks they have been studying from,” Urbina said. “This is a pinnacle point in their education.”
At the conferences, students also have opportunities to present data they’ve collected. UMHB students have presented nationally and internationally on more than 60 occasions.
Because of Outlaw’s experience working in the lab, she was able to attend annual conferences for the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN).
“At the NSCA conference I presented a poster abstract in 2013 and was a moderator in 2014. At ISSN, I presented a poster abstract in 2013, and last year I was selected as a student representative for 2014 through 2017,” Outlaw said.
She noted that her experience at UMHB has helped shape her future. “Everything I saw piqued my interest,” she said. “The more I got involved with the lab and had exposure to the research process, the more I began planning for a career in research and academia.”
While publications put students in the spotlight, running the day-to-day activities of the lab is not always glamourous. From scheduling appointments to maintaining equipment, the HPL staff keeps busy all year-round.
“Our biggest challenge is balance,” Urbina said. “It’s difficult finding a way to handle the number of studies that we do while serving faculty, staff, and student needs in our grant-funded world.”
Despite the challenges, lab leadership continues to hold students to high standards.“It is a field that can be littered with unethical behavior,” Wilborn said. “But people know that in our lab, we do things the right way. We are a nationally recognized lab, and we are known for being ethical in our research. In fact, even when a company’s product doesn’t work, the company will often come back to us to execute more of their studies because our work is trusted.”
Wilborn looks forward to a bright future. “Our long-term goal is to keep doing what we’ve been doing because we’ve been so successful at it,” Wilborn said. “Our work in the lab gives us an opportunity to touch a lot of people, whether it’s the research that we do or the manner in which we do it.”